Wednesday, October 20, 2010

a murder of crows

Two years ago your proprietor wrote the following:

"On the spur of the moment, after videotaping two shows at the Dark Room I grabbed a cab up to the Clay Theatre, where they were screening Alex Proyas' The Crow at midnight. This film was a staple of a short but memorable time in my life - I saw it four times when it screened back in 1994. A friend visiting briefly during an overseas gig was surprised that the thing had been released, in light of star Brandon Lee's on-set death (mirroring that of his father, Bruce Lee). As powerful as the film was, with its star's death paralleling that of his character, opinion was split of this curious film, among critics and among our friends: Sean thought it was a waste of time; Josh though it was too, unrelentingly dark; a woman I know had an orgasm during the nightclub shootout.

"As for me, I cried every time I saw it - the very act of watching the film was magic, its star a ghost haunting his final film, brought back to life every time the thing unfurled, projected on a screen. Those screenings remain precious memories, and solidified (though I was too young to realize it at the time) my belief in the cinema as an act of worship, as a tribal magic.

"And now fourteen years later, I returned to watch the ghost animate one more time (I could never watch the film on video). Tonight's service had maybe twenty attendees - even a pre-screening performance by a punk cabaret ensemble wasn't an inducement (hell, maybe the audience knew something about the band that I didn't, and went the following night).

"The film has dated all right, I'd say - Proyas' mise-en-scene is still remarkable, as artificial and lovely in its own dark way as the scratchy art and fragmented script of James O'Barr, creator of the original graphic novel. The songs and soundtrack still moved and amazed. The film's weaknesses, to which even as rapturous a convert as I back in '94 wasn't blind, still remained, and have not been made any less clunky by the passage of time. The whole "destroy-the-crow-and-you-destroy-the-man" thing remains an unhappy means of developing third act tension, despite the fact that Eric Draven, as invulnerable as he is, has already had everything taken from him, and could not possibly be more destroyed. The film's good points and bad points were remembered, and taken in with my older, more discerning eyes and more detached heart.

"But when the crow takes flight, propelling Eric toward the first fight in his quest for vengeance, Trent Reznor's cover of "Dead Souls" (itself haunted by original singer Ian Curtis) taking all of us over this damned city, carrying us along the rooftops as Brandon/Eric leap, stride, and run across them, the ghost lives again. I breathe in, softly, and cry."

The thing was wide open for sequels - any number of dead souls could be brought back for vengeance, and sequels proliferated across the screen, yes, but also in comics and novels. The cinematic franchise immediately saw diminishing returns: Vincent Pérez was just dandy in the lead (and much of the supporting cast were more than game), but the screenplay seized on and amplified the "destroy-the-crow-and-you-destroy-the-man" and collapsed into a mess. Further sequels went straight-to-video, and many of them had their moments. But none of the subsequent films could come near to capturing the ethereality of the first: the thing's too charged with the ghost of its star, rendering any sequel a pale, too-solid imitation.

Maybe for that reason I'm having a hard time getting worked up over the news that Mark Wahlberg is rumored to be cast as Eric Draven in a forthcoming remake/reboot. Perhaps I'm just numb to Hollywood disintering yet another franchise in lieu of paying a screenwriter to come up with something new. Perhaps because the original film is too close to my heart, too fast, too ghostly, too keenly felt, to be anything but unassailable.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

REDLINE afterglow

4F: 4F is up
House: heeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
House: that is a gorgeous piece of writing
House: it's a difficult film to write about without giving too much away, or sounding insane
4F: I love that film
4F: I do
House: me too
House: happily, it seems that it'll be widely released next year
4F: Yayyyy
House: its international and US distributors seem to know that they have something truly special on their hands
4F: Fab!
House: i feel like i had your hand in a vice-like grip thru the whole second half of the movie
House: i apologize for any discomfort
4F: Haha. Me too.
4F: No. I mean I was squeezing too
House: when the mechanic busted into the gangster's room to save frisbee, making the two of us gasp at once
House: i think that'll turn out to be my favorite moment at the movies this year
4F: Ha!
4F: Excellent
House: capping the night off watching the fiery moon descend to a tiny ember in the fog was the icing on it
House: thanks, d.
4F: Yes. XO

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


The eyes of an entire galaxy seem to be on Redline, a superturbocharged racing event featuring a disparate array of contenders. Notable among them is 25000-to-1 long-shot Sweet JP, a racer who had lost a qualifying event when his car exploded inches from the finish line. Like JP, whose youthful dreams of racing glory have been largely quashed by the criminal entanglements that have ensnared him, all of the Redline's competitors bring colorful and dangerous backstories to the event. And all of their dreams may end prematurely when Redline's unwilling host, the ruler of the militarized Roboworld, hires a psychotic colonel to annilihate all competitors.

Showing simultaneously in San Francisco with its Japanese premiere, Takeshi Koike's anime racing film is seamless, energizing, absurd, thoroughly entertaining, and completely uplifting. For all the insane details that are jammed into the film, its narrative line is surprisingly clean, hitting the beats well-established by other sports movies. Koike delivers a striking ensemble of colorful, driven characters (any of whom could hold the center of their own film), introducing each one and establishing their respective personalities, goals, and ambitions with efficiency and verve, giving each one focus and fleshing out a number of fantastic and bizarre subplots.

After the qualifying Yellowline event sets a high bar for action, Koike and his collaborators push the story and design of the film to more and more extreme and absurd realms. But the ongoing propulsive action never becomes numbing - it's so engaging that something in you seems to accelerate to accommodate the unique pulse of the unfolding spectacle. And yet the balance of the film's brief oases of quiet creates a powerful emotional stake in the action, and when the film finally reveals its romantic side, you're grabbed by the heart as strongly as the eyes.

So much contemporary cinema seems flaccid, sexless, joyless next to REDLINE. The film never flags, never cops out, and always has something batshit crazy and wonderful coming right up. The seven years the film spent in development were well spent, and yet it feels like it's inventing itself and exploding fresh before your very eyes.

ETA: From Anime News Network comes the welcome news that Manga Entertainment, clearly aware that they've got something special on their hands, are releasing the thing subtitled across the U.S. next year.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Thoughts upon revisiting this, one of your proprietor's favorite horror films, 28 years later:

--My mother, God love her, took me to see this theatrically. I'd first heard about it from a friend of her who was staying at our house, and told us excitedly about how they were filming this crazy movie called CREEPSHOW up in Pennsylvania where some guy killed his wife and her lover by burying them in front of the tide. Mom was appalled - I knew I had to see it. Mom remained appalled even after the film had finished (EDIT: hell, she got appalled all over again just reading this entry), but I was scarred for life with love for this crazy crazy movie, which had exceeded even my own weird expectations. Seeing it with adult, more analytical eyes, I still feel the same joy at revisiting it that I did during its frequent cable appearances during my youth. And my studies of film and storytelling have opened my eyes to other strengths of the film that I was too young to appreciate.

--It's dated, yes, but it remains George Romero's most ambitious and overtly stylized film, and balances a relative seriousness of purpose with a real willingness on the part of everyone involved, from scripter Stephen King to the experienced cast, to make it something crazy and special.

--Some segments are better than others, as with any anthology, but each piece serves its purpose in the whole. A friend with whom I watched it felt that the curtain raiser, "Father's Day", was slight enough to have been excised altogether, but I really don't think "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" would work as an opener. "Father's Day" schlocky and gore-crazed as it is (setting a rotting ghoul loose upon his remaining, rich family members), establishes the film's visual tropes beautifully, and firmly, ungently lets us know that some crazy shit's about to hit, and anything can happen at any time.

Seriously, can there be a clearer statement of purpose than the severed head as holiday cake served up by a vengeful, rotting corpse? Like the slashed eyeball in Un Chien Andalou, it just puts you on edge for the rest of the movie. Fuck, yeah.

--There is absolutely nothing subtle about Stephen King's widely-lambasted performance in "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill", but you gotta love his bug-eyed, out there commitment. Such fearlessness on the part of a first-time actor is to be praised. And listen to the television that plays during the segment - a clever and funny chorus recalling similar commentaries elsewhere (like the downright manic telethon in Karlson's TIGHT SPOT).

--"Something To Tide Your Over" changes the mood effectively, beginning as an almost noirish tale of infidelity and revenge. Lovely acting in this piece, with a pre-Cheers Ted Danson one step behind an angrily pirouetting Leslie Nielsen (whose balance between his Airplane!-style nuttery and some real, simmering rage encapsulates the film's dual shocks and silliness beautifully). Nielsen's hysteria upon receiving his comeuppance is glorious to behold.

--Though part of my love for this film is apologistic, I have no problem joining the mass opinion that "The Crate", the film's fourth and longest segment, is the most compelling reason to watch it. It offers a more complex plot than the other segments, pairing its supernatural story (of a ravenous creature in a crate discovered in a university basement) with that of a college professor's mounting frustration with his shrewish wife. Tom Savini's creature design is effective, more than matched by the performances of the segment's three leads: Hal Holbrook as the put-upon prof; Adrienne Barbeau in a fearlessly raunchy turn as his wife Billie; and particularly Fritz Weaver as Holbrook's desperate, increasingly hysterical colleague. Though many of the performances in this film successfully walk a difficult line, I have to single out Weaver's work as the finest (and possibly most believable).

--"They're Creeping Up On You" offers a perfect coda, with E.G. Marshall in fine cantankerous form as a hypochondriac/corporate tyrant who gets his in spectacularly creepy fashion, thanks to an ever-growing legion of cockroaches that invade his sterile uptown penthouse. Lovely contrast between the scuttling of the bugs and the metallic sheen of Marshall's apartment, with Marshall offering just enough real spite to give his just deserts that much oomph. David Early is just fine in a one-scene role, giving hilarious voice to a loathing of Marshall that is more than mutual.

--Plus cranky, uptight dad Tom Atkins gets his in the framing sequence. (Very happy to see, in the generous extras accompanying the film's British DVD release, that Atkins and his on-screen son Joe King had a warm and close relationship off-camera, that continues in emails from one to the other to this day.)

--In the end, no bones at all about Creepshow - my love for it continues unabated. It's a pity the franchise didn't really pan out, and though I'm not terribly optimistic about the rumored remake (thinking that the original's EC Comics source material may draw a blank from its intended audience today), I suspect I'll continue to return to Romero/King's original well into my dotage.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Japan, the Warring States period. A peasant woman and her daughter in law scratch out subsistence by slaying wayward soldiers and bartering their weapons for food. Into their midst comes Hachi, a neighbor/AWOL soldier who tells them that their son/husband was killed. The triangle that forms between these three characters has sharp corners indeed, and the intensifying jealousy, lust, and hatred between them kicks into overdrive when one of them comes upon a terrifying demon mask.

Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba treads similar territory to a number of Japanese films of the 50s and 60s. Films like Fires on the Plain capture soldiers and civilians alike on the run from conflict, their desperation to survive turning them to extreme behaviors that reveal the ultimate darkness within the human soul. Perhaps because its supernatural aspects are more overt, Onibaba is less effective and horrific than similar films. Though understandably driven to desperation by ongoing lives of trauma, the uniformly unpleasant characters of the film are difficult to feel for on a visceral level, diluting the impact of their ultimate fates.

But Onibaba is a visual marvel, making maximum use of its evocative susuki field settings. As fond as your proprietor is of the theatrical, artificial mise-en-scenes of Japan's most audacious filmmakers (and their art directors), the wind-swept susuki creates a lush but threatening presence that is a striking and ever-present character (a chorus, perhaps) in its own right. Superstition reigns powerfully over the film's characters, with summer frost rendering crops barren and two-headed calves portending danger. This free-wheeling chaos has turned gender roles topsy-turvy (Freudian imagery plays powerfully throughout): men are reduced to fleeing cowards, and the two women turn phallic spears on their male victims, and dispose of their prey in a gaping, yonic maw that lurks in the scenery like a shark. It's an effective liminal zone, and one becomes as tense and lost in the on-screen bewilderness as any of Shindo's characters.

If the simplicity of the script belies its origins in a short Buddhist parable, the actors hit their respective one notes with gusto. Sketchy though Onibaba sometimes is, aspects of it linger, be it the silent-then-batshit score of Hikaru Hayashi or the susuki, restless but quiet as it shakes ominously in the wind.

This review is part of the Final Girl Film Club, run with efficiency and verve by the wild and wily Stacie Ponder.

Friday, October 1, 2010

a simple list

Sent to Final Girl Stacie Ponder for her Shocktober event, which looks to be one of the horror blogosphere's finer offerings this month, this is a simple, quickly sketched but fairly accurate list of your proprietor's top 20 horror flicks, in no order.

Suspiria -- 1977, Dario Argento
Dawn Of The Dead -- 1978, George Romero
The Brides of Dracula -- 1960, Terence Fisher
Creepshow -- 1982, George Romero
The Beyond -- 1981, Lucio Fulci
Ju-On: The Grudge 2 -- 2003, Takashi Shimizu
The Brood -- 1979, David Cronenberg
Sunset Blvd. -- 1950, Billy Wilder
The Fog -- 1980, John Carpenter
The Bride of Frankenstein -- 1935, James Whale
The Black Imp -- 1905, Georges Méliès
Séance -- 2000, Kiyoshi Kurosawa
C.H.U.D. -- 1984, Douglas Cheek

Demon City Shinjuku -- 1988, Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Carnival of Souls -- 1962, Herk Harvey
Fright Night -- 1985, Tom Holland
An American Werewolf in London -- 1981, John Landis
Outer Space -- 1999, Peter Tscherkassky
Dust Devil -- 1992, Richard Stanley
Black Sunday -- 1960, Mario Bava